Growing up, I was the kid that incessantly asked for a dog. Any birthday, holiday or gift-giving season, “a puppy” was always at the top of my list. So, in 2020, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed with zero experience, I finally brought home my very first dog (an Australian Shepherd pup named Murphy), and the learning curve was steep. Here are seven things I wish I knew before becoming a pet parent, plus a few helpful tips and products I picked up along the way.
7 Things I Wish I Knew Before Getting My First Dog
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1. The Puppy Stage Will Test You
Puppyhood is a special stage, but it’s also one of the most challenging times of dog ownership. Even if you adopt a fully trained adolescent, adult or senior dog, there’s no doubt you’ll experience growing pains as you navigate your new life together. I’ll never forget my dog’s first few days at home, adjusting to new surroundings and the loss of his littermates. At first, he was quiet and timid, perfectly polite, but after a few days in his new home things took a turn. As he began to test the waters–like all puppies do–my patience was waning. By day five, I was in tears, overly stressed and sleep deprived with a gash across my face from an accidental play bite wondering what the heck had I gotten myself into.
If you’re in the thick of this pint-sized frenzy, I’m here to tell you this too shall pass. With time and attention, they’ll sleep through the night, they’ll pick up potty training and those ultra-sharp puppy teeth will eventually fall out (I promise).
2. Prepare to Spend (a Lot)
News flash: Dogs are expensive and pet care doesn’t come cheap. Though my bank account was ready, nothing could prepare me for the sticker shock of my first routine vet bill. And if you’re planning to get your dog spayed or neutered, start saving now (because even if you have pet insurance, the procedure most likely won’t be covered).
Another expense I couldn’t fully anticipate? Daycare and pet sitting. With the uptick in post-pandemic back-to-office mandates, you might need to consider a daycare or dog walker to keep your pup socialized and active while you’re on the clock. Depending on the rate, even just a few days a week can put a dent in your savings. And if you love to travel, be sure to factor in a kennel or pet sitter when planning out your budget.
3. Spontaneous Travel Will Be a Thing of the Past
Speaking of travel, gone are the days of the spontaneous getaway. Flights to Miami insanely cheap this weekend? Friends plan a last-minute rendezvous upstate? Too bad, because unless there are multiple people willing and able to take care of your dog, if the sitter isn’t available, you’re out of luck.
For times when you do plan on bringing your dog along, make sure you do your research. Pet travel guidelines vary wildly across all airlines (and have gotten stricter in the past few years), and not all hotels or home rentals allow pets. For me, visiting family used to involve a quick and easy two-hour flight. Now, since my 40-pound Aussie isn’t allowed in most airline cabins, it involves renting a car and 12 hours on the road. (Of course, his safety and well-being make it entirely worth it.)
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4. And You May Not Want to Leave Them Anyway
You arrive at your fancy hotel in a dream location with an itinerary you’ve spent months planning, only to find yourself constantly checking in with the sitter to make sure your dog’s OK (just me?). My guess is that this is what most parents experience after having a baby, and I can confirm the same goes for pets. As an avid traveler and anti-homebody, I used to love anything that got me out of the house: a day trip down the shore, a food festival uptown, a late-night meal followed by bar hopping and karaoke. But now, as lame as it sounds, anything I can’t enjoy with my dog just seems…a little less fun. Luckily, I’ve found new ways to imbibe in my usual haunts with Murphy in tow, thanks to pet-friendly restaurants, Uber Pet and a newfound love of exploratory walking.
5. You’re a Dog Trainer for Life
Sit, stay, down, come. Once my dog mastered a handful of these essential (and lifesaving) commands, I figured I could wash my hands of training. But after over two years as a pet parent, I’ve realized that’s not the case. Dogs, like people, are everchanging based on the experiences they encounter. And as their personalities change, so should their care. Murphy used to be fearless, open to socializing and engaging with anyone that would show him the time of day. But after a few aggressive encounters with other dogs, he’s much more shy, cautious and reactionary. To maintain control and help him feel both calm and safe during social interactions, I’ve had to rethink how I approach his training.
Your dog may develop a new quirk, have a life-altering injury or experience something that changes their whole demeanor. As a pet parent, it’s your job to notice these cues and respond accordingly. Though the training plan may evolve, it never really stops, and the more your dog learns and develops, the more you’re able to teach him.
6. Invest in a Good Vacuum (and Prepare to Use It Constantly)
If you’re getting a dog that’s prone to shedding, a high-performing pet vacuum is a non-negotiable (and maybe throw in a steam mop while you’re at it). After chatting with other first-time dog owners, we all agreed that the canine clean-up requirements came as a bit of a shock. From tufts of fur in every corner of the house to smudges and dirt stains that pop up in the strangest of places, you may never feel like your house is truly clean again.
In addition to a Roomba and an upright high-power vacuum, I also have a small handheld device that’s on permanent display in my living room, allowing for quick removal when a rogue floof is spotted. And with all that fur, you might want to warm up to the fact that you will find dog hair just about everywhere (sometimes…even in your food). My best advice for saving your sanity? Buy the nice vacuum.
7. Your Life Will Never Be the Same–In the Best Way Possible
Prepare to feel all the feels: joy, stress, anxiety, frustration, affection, protectiveness and above all else (as cheesy as it sounds) unconditional love. You’ll laugh a little more, smile a little more and savor the simple moments that would have otherwise gone unnoticed, like a morning snuggle or an after-work hello. In the words of author W.R. Pursche, “Everyone thinks they have the best dog. And none of them are wrong.”